Rocketship’s charter application — which is the largest ever to come before District officials, and which might win approval this month — arrives on the heels of Chancellor Kaya Henderson’s decision to close 15 half-empty city schools, highlighting an intense debate about the future of public education in the nation’s capital.
A growing number of activists have raised concerns that the traditional school system, facing stiffer-than-ever competition from charters, is in danger of being relegated to a permanently shrunken role. And they worry that Washington has yet to confront what that could mean for taxpayers, families and neighborhoods.
“Maybe we need an entire school system full of charters,” said Virginia Spatz, who co-hosts a community-radio talk show on D.C. education. “But we need to have that after public conversation, not by accident.”
Politicians appear to have heard the call. Mayor Vincent C. Gray (D) acknowledged in his State of the District address Tuesday that charters — which are publicly funded but independently run — are likely to soon educate half the city’s students.
“Certainly there are strengths to such an approach. But there are also challenges — challenges with which no city has yet grappled,” said Gray, who added that he has directed his education cabinet to develop a coordinated “road map for public education.”
Competition has forced both school sectors to improve, Gray said in an interview, and should be preserved. “I don’t believe in monopolies,” he said. “Anything that tips the balance too far in one direction or the other is not good for our children.”
D.C. Council member David A. Catania (I-At Large), the influential chair of the council’s new education committee, also says the city has too long allowed charters and traditional schools to operate in isolation, without a vision for how they should coexist.
“Right now we have schools that pop up everywhere . . . competing against other established charter schools and traditional public schools,” Catania said. “I think we have a responsibility to help manage this process.”
Though he says he doesn’t want to slow charter expansion, Catania says he will push for “a momentary pause so that we can make sure that we’re all growing in the same direction.”
He says that lawmakers could influence charters’ growth by accelerating the closure of underperforming charters or — even more aggressively — by withholding $3,000-per-pupil facilities payments from new charters to discourage them from opening.